Due to climate change and the carelessness of people, many parts of the Earth have been plagued by record-breaking fires this year, the worst in history. The fight with this element lasted for weeks and caused enormous, irreversible damage. Greece is one of those countries where hectares of forests have burned, thousands of animals have died, people have had to flee from burning houses and have lost their belongings. In all this, people forget the most important thing! About the people who sacrifice their health and lives fighting this monstrous fire on the front line – the firefighters. They are the ones who every day protect the environment, save the lives of people and animals and prevent disasters. They make us feel safer, often at the expense of their health.
Chris Papachristos, fire captain of the Thessaloniki Fire Department
Chris is a 37-year-old firefighter, with ten years of experience in the profession. He studied electrical and computer engineering, but working in this profession did not satisfy him because he needed more contact with people. So he decided to change his career and try working as a firefighter, “It’s all about teamwork, not only about putting out a fire, but also rescuing a person in danger inside a smashed car and taking them to the hospital, for example”, he starts. After spending a year in the fire department, he loved it so much that he can’t imagine changing his career to anything else.
He was one of the many heroes who took part in putting out this year’s fires in Greece, which engulfed almost the entire country. In large part, these fires were caused by temperatures that exceeded 45 degrees every day for long periods of time and a lack of rain. Chris admitted that this was the worst summer he has ever experienced in his life, which can be confirmed by the terrible statistics of this summer in Greece: almost 30% of the island of Evia has been burned down and in total 116.000 hectares have been destroyed in the country. These terrible data make 2021 fires the worst ones since 1987.
Firefighting operation in Evia
Evia is the Greek island, near Athens, where the fire situation was the worst. This island was consumed by the fire that started on the 4th of August this year and it is estimated that 50,000 hectares of the island were lost. The effects of the fires in Greece are well shown by satellite images and an eyewitness testimony of a firefighter. Chris took part in the Evia firefighting operation and he explained: “You know you didn’t put out the fire, but somehow you feel responsible and you want to go faster and faster, it seems like it never stops”. He and his colleagues had to do some heroic work to prevent this terrible fire from causing a greater damage. “You are already tired after a 6 hour trip to get to the place. You are far from civilization and, even if we are protected, you start spitting black stuff from your mouth; you get sunburnt, heat burnt. But it is your job to perimeter the fire”, he adds.
“Most of the time I feel sad, I am crying. It’s a mix of anger, tiredness and sadness. A rotation of feeling.”
Firefighters are expected to be professional and not to let their feelings get to them, but working in such conditions is not only exhausting for the firefighter’s body, it also dramatically affects their mental health. The constant presence of burning forests, the constant sight of your beloved country on fire, the suffering of animals, the sight of people losing their homes and possessions are horrible sights that make you have mixed feelings. That’s why Chris separated his feelings into external ones – as a captain who is responsible not only for his life but also for his crew, he admitted: “I have to be a robot there, but I’m not” and also into internal feelings, as Chris, who exactly like all of us is not a robot and has feelings “Most of the time I feel sad, I am crying. It’s a mix of anger, tiredness and sadness. A rotation of feelings”, he insists.
The other side of the coin – The reality of working as a firefighter
For firefighters, summer is the worst time of the year. They have to be on call and on standby all the time, no matter if they have a day off or are on vacation. They get a call from the fire station and immediately they have to show up at their station and then head out on a mission. In the case of the Evia’s firefighting mission, Chris reported that he left Thessaloniki at 3 a.m. and returned two days later at 10 a.m., having slept only 4 hours in the car. Due to the fact that he is a captain, he added : “You cannot ask these people to work such long schedules as we do, since they are here supporting us and I cannot ask a colleague to climb a cliff at 3 a.m. after 40 hours of non-stop working”.
This uncertain work schedule is not only exhausting, but Chris has also lost a lot of money and well-deserved rest, as he had a vacation booked at the end of July but obviously couldn’t go, thus losing his own personal money. Additionally, “They don’t pay us the extra hours. They give us days off. But I have more than 150 days off accumulated,” he laments.
This is just one thing Chris has criticized. After 10 years as a firefighter and now as a fire captain, he also criticized the prevention system in Greece. He believes that “you have to invest in prevention, not on putting out the disaster”. The government should invest money first in forestry science, forestry agency, people patrolling the forest, maps, and forest cleaning – that is to do everything that will help protect the country from fire.
He also pointed out the poor shift system for firefighters and suggested: “If you need 50 firefighters on the field in normal working conditions you have to have 100 firefighters. You need to replace them’’.
What can we do to prevent fires?
An important point that Chris pointed out is the main causes of fires. Of course there can be natural causes such as heat, lack of rain combined with wind, but he also mentioned that very often it is human behaviours which cause fires. Among the main causes, Chris pointed out the making barbecues in the middle of the summer. From a firefighter’s perspective, “it’s a criminal situation”. There are many places where it is safe to have a barbecue, but Chris is begging “just don’t start a fire in Greece in summer”.
Additionally, “don’t build a house in the forest because of course your house will be the first which will be burned”, added Chris. With such temperatures and climate, people should not build their houses illegally in the forest, because with such a fast spreading fire it is impossible to save a burning house in the middle of the forest.
Talking with Chris made me realize how hard, demanding and responsible the firefighting profession is. Firefighters sacrifice their health and lives to save ours. They protect us from danger and prevent disasters. People are grateful for their help, but they forget about the hard work of firefighters and the terrible conditions they have to work in. We should appreciate them more, respect them and fight for better conditions for their work. We should also not forget that they are people like us, who also have feelings, families, work in extreme fatigue and stress in places from which people normally flee.
Let us help them and not add extra work. Let’s not throw glass bottles on the ground, let’s not throw away burning cigarettes on the ground, let’s not build illegal houses in the forests, let’s not make barbecues in the middle of the summer, let’s not burn grass. Remember: it is better to focus and invest in fire prevention than firefighting.